26 July 2008

Back In The Day...

Today I did a bike ride I used to do just about every weekend. But today was the first time I'd done it in about two, and possibly three years: from my place to Nyack, in Rockland County, and back.

You get yourself to the George Washington Bridge. Time was when I lived about half a mile from it, on Fairview Avenue in Manhattan. So I could practically roll out of bed and ride across. Now I live about ten miles or so from the span, in Queens. But it feels longer than that, not because it's difficult, but for the labyrinthine routes I must take to get to it. No matter which way I go, there are backtracking and detours, as streets lead to cul-de-sacs or turn back on themselves. Or they suddenly turn into one-ways or end abruptly. Then, of course, there's always the decision as to whether to go around or through Central Park. If you decide to transverse the Park, you won't have to deal with car traffic, but you will have to contend with rollerbladers and runners with power strollers skateboarders--all of whom, it seems, are listening to music through earphones. Then, of course, there are tourists who are snapping photos or simply looking up and away at the wonderful skyline views, but are totally oblivious to anyone moving faster than they are. Not to criticize them: I have been such a tourist in the places from which most of those people come.

Anyway...Today I didn't ride through the Park. Instead, I pedalled up First Avenue to 111th Street. Above 79th Street or so, there's usually not much traffic on a Saturday, and today was no exception. Stores come and go, but the vibe of it never seems to change: Youth and proximity to power, or at least wealth. Of course, they have to have money to live there, but compared to the denizens of Madison and Park Avenues--less than half a mile away--they're paupers. So, while it appears to be more casual than the Upper East Side's so-called Gold Coast, there's also a kind of self-consciousness that one doesn't find amongst the townhouses up the hill. Although people around Park and Madison in the 60's, 70's and 80's are usually well, or at least expensively, dressed and coiffed, it seems as if they don't have to think about it. Perhaps they don't have to impress anybody because, well, nobody there can be impressed. Not so for the residents of First Avenue.

But I digress. (So what else is new?, you ask.) Anyway, at 111th, I turned left and transversed the Island, at least to Frederick Douglass Boulevard: one of the central thoroughfares of Harlem. I know that it's changing, but it's still strange, at least for me, to see young white people unloading their cars and rented U-Hauls at those townhouses. It's not that I fear for them: even when its reputation was at its very worst, I never had any fear when I walked or pedalled through Harlem. For one thing, I always thought its rep was very exaggerated: There were crime and other problems, and there still are. But other places, including the neighborhood in which I lived, had them, too. Most of the people in Harlem--yes, I did get to talk to quite a few--were just trying to make it through the day. So was I. Frankly, a lot of them were doing a better job of it than I was.

Anyway...If you ride north (uptown) through Harlem, Hamilton Heights, Sugar Hill and Washington Heights, you're riding up an incline, all the way to the Bridge (and beyond, if you don't go to the Bridge). Most of the way, this climb is very gradual: just enough for you to notice, especially after three miles or so.

And I noticed it because I haven't ridden it in some time and because, well, I'm getting older. And the estrogen has taken hold, as the doctor said it would. You lose muscle strength and possibly stamina. All right: I want it all. I want to ride like a girl but with the strength I had as a guy. That'll come about about the same time as medical science offers real, working ovaries for transgender women. Not to say those events will be related: They'll come at about the same time. Why, I don't know.

Time was when I pedalled up this incline almost every day, when I was working on 53rd and Lex and living on Fairview. I didn't even have to think about it: Half an hour after I'd slung my leg over my bike, I was home, and none the worse for the ride. Of course, I was also twenty-plus years younger than I am now. And I was full of testosterone and anger. About the latter, just ask Bruce or anyone who knew me back then.

That was before Eva. Before Tammy. Before the women in between them, and the women and men who preceded them. Before I'd dealt with my alcohol and other substance abuse problems and the molestations I endured as a child--not to mention my gender identity issues. Before lots of things--including births and deaths.

As my first ride to Nyack was. I can't give you the exact date, but I guess it was during that first spring or second summer after I returned to New York. That would be 1984. It was a good bit longer than today's ride, since I was doing it for the first time, and because of my navigational skills, about which I like to tell people I'm a direct decendent of Columbus and inherited his sense of direction.

On the Jersey side of the Bridge, you turn left. On your left are the office buildings and houses of Fort Lee, which, were it not for its views of the Big Apple, would be one of the most charm-free cities in the country. On your right, beyond a stone wall and a berm, is the Palisades Parkway. You follow this road for about two miles to its end, take a left, then the next right to Route 9W.

On any weekend day when the weather's decent, hundreds, if not thousands, of cyclists ride up and down this road. Again, you're riding up a slight incline for a few miles. If you're riding early in the afternoon, as I was, most of the cyclists you see will be on the opposite side of the road, riding toward the bridge.

I've ridden this route alone, with friends, with two different cycling clubs and with people I met on the road and never saw again. None of those people, except Bruce, are in my life now.

I glanced at the cyclists coming in the opposite direction. As far as I know, none of my old riding partners were among them. Then again, I wasn't looking for them. A few smiled and nodded their hands in my direction.

As I looked at them, I couldn't help but to notice how much they looked alike. Sure, they were of various ages, colors and shapes. Most of them were male; the few females I saw accompanied male riders. But that wasn't the reason for their sameness.

I thought back to how I used to own a dozen or so cycling jerseys and half a dozen or eight pairs of cycling shorts--all of them made of lycra. The shorts were almost always black, but the jerseys sported all sorts of graphics and colors. Some of them were replicas of jerseys worn by cyclists in the Tour de France and other major races. Tammy--another past companion on this ride-- used to say that wearing cycle clothing was one of the few opportunities men had to be peacocks.

But even with all of those colors, the cyclists all seemed to be in uniform. Then I understood why I recently got rid of my last jerseys and now have only one pair of cycling shorts left. Yes, bike clothes are lightweight, wick moisture and, I guess, make you more aerodynamic. But I took some long rides when I was young and "didn't know any better" in regular clothes--as I did today. Today, my only concessions to cycling regalia were practical: my helmet (If you have a brain that's worth protecting, you need one.), gloves and shoes. And I'm even thinking of getting rid of my click-in pedals, which require cleated shoes, for platform pedals and toeclips like the ones I rode for I-don't-know-how-many years, so I can wear sneakers, loafers or whatever else I want to wear.

If any of those riders notice, I might lose face. Oh well. Barbara and Sue, with whom I sometimes ride, couldn't care less. More important, I couldn't, either. But back in the day--not so long ago, really--I would've.

And, after you've pedalled up 9W--past the suburban sprawl, the mansions, the rock ledges and patches of woods and Columbia University's geological station where you cross back into New York State--you descend the steepest hill (which you have to climb if you come back this way) of the ride. Not long past the bottom, I like to turn off on the road for Tallman Mountain State Park, twisting between the wooded areas and some rather charmingly bucolic houses--to the side of a small stream or a canal that's fallen into disuse: I'm not sure of which. Then you pass through one of those strips of boutiques and cafes that's too cute to be truly charming but will do just fine for a mindless Sunday brunch. And on past houses that look more gingerbread or Victorian or Alice-in-Wonderland than they really are: Somehow I imagine the people in them were once hippies, or pretended to be, and now that they make money, they want to keep the artifacts and gestures of whimsicality. A lot of them had "Vote for Obama" signs on their lawns; a few Ron Paul postings remained. I don't recall seeing any for McCain.

The last time I did this ride, I hadn't heard of Obama. I knew a little about Ron Paul, and McCain didn't impress me any more than he does now.

And on, past a wedding party floating out of a church next to the Hudson River, underneath the Tappan Zee Bridge, and up two small hills that can be difficult only because you make sharp turns--and you may have to stop for traffic--before you start the climb. Then, finally, the main street of Nyack and every cyclist's (at least in this area) favorite cafe: the Runcible Spoon.

Back when I used to drink coffee, they made some of the best French roast you could get without taking the next flight to Charles de Gaulle or Antoine Saint Exupery. And they made a flaky cinnamon pastry laced with cinnamon and sugar that I loved. But they were out of that and, as appetizing as the terrine of three mousses and the cupcakes looked, I thought they might've been a bit much. So I had only a large iced green tea.

Because it was just past three when I got there, there weren't as many cyclists as I remember from rides past. But even though I'd met none of them before, they were familiar: They came in those familiar racing uniforms on the latest carbon-fiber bikes in the flashiest graphics you can imagine. The wannabe racers. I used to be one of them. Actually, I did race, but I kept up the facade for nearly two decades after I stopped.

Again, all were male--except for a tall blonde woman who accompanied her boyfriend or husband. They rode the only steel frames besides mine. But theirs weren't Mercians: they were rather generic TIG-welded bikes with well-known names on them. But no matter: They rode in each other's company, seemingly without any intention to impress anyone but each other.

One guy--a black man about ten years younger than me--looked kinda sorta familiar. I wondered whether he recognized me. He seemed not to look my way. If he hadn't seen me coming in, he probably didn't notice me at all. Nor did his friend. I used to gain entry into groupings like theirs--some, anyway--by the way I used to dress back in the day on rides like these. I didn't want to join in their conversation--such as it was--but I wondered whether that one guy was someone I used to ride with. If he wasn't noticing me because I wasn't wearing bike clothes, he reminded me of people with whom I used to work: They couldn't see--or hear--anyone who wasn't wearing the same kinds of business suits as they were. And I wasn't working in the fashion world!

I'd bet that next year, those guys won't be riding the bikes they have now--indeed, if they are still riding. Nor would anyone there, except for the couple--and me. Anyone who buys a high-quality chrome-molybdenum steel frame these days--especially someone who has one custom-made, as I did with my Mercian--is buying for the long term. As long as I don't crash it, I may well be riding my Merc for the rest of my life.

And I'll be riding it on my own time, for my own reasons. Not like I did back in the day.